Not the Chelsea Flower Show.

Welcome aboard, we’re going on a journey…

When I was 9 or 10 or so years old, the school library contained a small set of softback books about notable ships. Amongst the titles as I recall were Titanic, Royal Sovereign, Cutty Sark and Gipsy Moth IV. Recalling now from this distance in time is a bit of a task you’ll understand but there was definitely one about Titanic and one about Cutty Sark.

Cutty Sark was built in Dumbarton, Scotland in 1869 to be a Tea Clipper, carrying tea from the far east back to the UK. The route these ships followed from China went across the Indian Ocean, around the southern tip of Africa and up the Atlantic Ocean, following the prevailing winds which often took the ships closer to the South American continent than Africa.

Cutty Sark was one of the last clippers to be built and was constructed using the then latest technology, namely an iron frame, clad in wood which made her not only strong but also allowed more space in her hold for carrying cargo.

The Suez Canal was opened in 1869, the same year as Cutty Sark was launched (pay attention at the back there) and this made it possible for those newfangled steam powered ships to make the journey much faster and soon the tea clippers were out of a job. Cutty Sark was put to various other uses but found her feet, as it were, carrying wool from Australia. In the winter of 1883/84, she made the journey from Newcastle N.S.W to London in 83 days, which may sound a lot, but back then, oh boy, that was going some.

Anyway, being a bit of a ship nerd (yes, yes, a train nerd also), I read and re-read those books, soaking up every fact, every detail.

At this time, I was also into my Airfix kit building phase, I built the Spitfire, Hurricane and Lancaster etc. but the kits I liked most were the historical ships. H.M.S. Victory, U.S.S. Constitution (that one was a Revell kit, not Airfix), R.R.S. Discovery, R.M.S. Queen Elizabeth, P.S. Great Western and of course, Cutty Sark.

I particularly liked the sailing ships, and I went to town raiding my mother’s sewing box, to apply the rigging to them as prototypically as I could. The kits came with some fairly basic rigging, shrouds and ratlines, the rope “ladders” that enable hardy Jack Tars to ascend the masts to the tops and crosstrees, but that was about all, any other rigging had to be sourced and affixed by the intrepid modeller.

And source and affix I did, with gusto; in truth, the affixing was done with glue, but you know what I mean… Obviously, a real ship has miles of standing and running rigging, literally miles of rigging, (that’s kilometres in new money) and I couldn’t replicate all of that but I did my best to add representative rigging and, when finished, though I say so myself, it did look good.

I built the Airfix model of the Cutty Sark twice; once in the late 1960’s and once again in the mid 1980’s. The one I built in the 60’s was a straight assembly job, I didn’t paint it because I was too impatient to get the thing assembled. The best part, as far as I was concerned was building it; painting came second but of course painting the completed model would be far more difficult than if I had been more patient and painted the parts separately before I assembled them, so it didn’t get painted. That particular model, some years later was consigned to a watery grave, just northwest of Bridge 141 on the Grand Union Canal.

In the mid 80’s I was more patient, and I did paint the model. Building Airfix kits, as I have written before in this blog, gives you an insight into the real thing, you can hold the model in your hands and see it from angles that would be impossible in the real world, with the real thing.

Being well-read about the Cutty Sark I knew that the ship was built for speed, I imagined a knife-like prow slicing through the water. Upon building the model however, the prow seemed to have a blunt edge, a feature that I put-down to the manufacturing process for the model. Then, when I got to visit Cutty Sark in her dry dock at Greenwich, I saw that there was no sharp edge to the prow, and it was indeed blunt.

London was an easy train ride away and in the mid nineteen seventies and into the eighties, once I was pronounced old enough to do so, I visited Cutty Sark many times, walking around the ship, gazing up into the rigging, imagining the sails set. One thing that I never did do though was to go onboard. I don’t know why, maybe I just never had the money but that seems far-fetched if I’d obviously had the money to get down to Greenwich in the first place.

The ship sat in a dry-dock, completely cut-off from the Thames but gazing longingly towards the river, close by in its own small dry dock sat Gipsy Moth IV, the two masted ketch in which Sir Francis Chichester sailed single-handed around the world in 1966/67, being the first person to accomplish the feat.

At the front of the dry dock in which Cutty Sark rested there were two flights of stone steps descending to the floor of the dock. Entrance to the floor of the dock was barred but you could walk about two thirds of way down, until you were some ways below the waterline and gaze up at the bow and figurehead towering above you.

A few weeks ago, some friends of ours, Jean and Peter, got in touch and said that they were going to go to the Chelsea Flower Show. Would we like to go too and was it OK for them to stay at ours for a couple of nights?

Yes, of course they could stay for a couple of nights and yes, of course Kath wanted to go.

Me? I wasn’t that enamoured of a day looking at flowers but as I was the one with “the knowledge” when it came to getting about in That London, I said that I would go into town with them, get them to the door as it were, and then go and amuse myself. Jean and Peter had an ulterior motive for this visit, they knew one of the exhibitors and wanted to go and see their creation.

On the Friday I went up to Euston to meet our friends off of the Liverpool train and guide them back to Chesham via the short walk to Euston Square and the Metropolitan Line. Jean expressed a wish to be there at the gates at 08:00 on Saturday, to beat the crowds. That would necessitate getting to 06:30 train and none of us, apart from Jean, were keen to be up and about that early so after some negotiations we persuaded her that maybe a slightly later start would be the thing to do, and we all had a rather splendid Chinese takeaway for tea.

We caught the 08:00 train from Chesham and changing at Finchley Road for the Jubilee Line and then at Westminster for the District Line to Sloane Square where we arrived at about 09:20. Emerging from the station we were met with hoards (other collective nouns are available) of ticket touts all asking if we had or if we wanted tickets for the Flower Show. I wasn’t ready for that; I’d often experienced it going to concerts in That London, but I wasn’t really expecting it of a flower show.

After a short walk we arrived at the London Gate of the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, and I waved the three of them off into the grounds to enjoy the flowers and then I walked along to find Chelsea Bridge and cross the river. I’d already decided what I was going to do, and that was to catch the River Bus or Uber Boat as it’s now called for promotional purposes, down to Greenwich and once at Greenwich, to go aboard the Cutty Sark.

Crossing the river I stood in the shadow of Battersea Power Station, well, not literally as the sun was in the wrong position for that but I stood figuratively in the shadow of a building held in some reverence by us fans of Progressive Rock, being as it is the building on the front cover of Pink Floyd’s album, Animals.

Lately, Battersea Power Station has been undergoing a multi-million-pound reconstruction, making it a place of desirable city dwellings, retail outlets and offices. Between the end of the building and the waterfront they have constructed a rather nice public space. All rather different from the first time I visited the building in 2006 to go to an exhibition sponsored by the Serpentine Gallery which showcased the work of contemporary Chinese artists. The exhibition was called “China Power Station: Part 1” and was held between 8 October and 5 November 2006. I went there with two friends, Kerry and Paul. We didn’t want to see any exhibits by contemporary Chinese artists, we had no interest in that whatsoever, we just wanted to get inside the building and have a poke about.

We’d taken with us a pig from a Pass the Pigs game. Who remembers that eh? Anyway, tied to a length of thread we, or Kerry at any rate, wanted to recreate the image of Pink Floyd’s giant inflatable pig between the chimneys of the power station. A lot of the building was out of bounds and probably rightly so as bits of it looked like they would fall down if you simply looked at them too hard. We followed the prescribed course and saw the exhibits but there was also opportunity to, um, stray and see other parts of the building.

As for the art, well, I think it’s safe to say that we three were underwhelmed. One of the pieces was a tank with broken tracks and a droopy gun. Another was a collection of stuffed goats which appeared to be watching TV and another was a wall of apples, real apples trapped between to great lengths of wire mesh fencing. At least that one smelt nice, as the apples were slowly decaying and filling the air with a sweet aroma, but it had attracted a certain number of wasps no doubt looking for a home.

I wonder if there was ever a China Power Station: Part 2?
Well, I just Googled it and yes, there was, it was held in the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo, Norway in 2007.

The boat arrived and I boarded, touching-in with my trusty Oyster Card. I liked the idea of a trip down the Thames, but these boats are so, boring. Oh yes, they are modern, comfortable and fast but the majority of the accommodation is under cover. Upon boarding I immediately made my way aft to where you can sit “in the open” and watch the scenery going by. I say in the open, it’s almost open as there’s an extension of the main cabin roof that projects over the open seating area but at least the sides and the rear are open to the elements.

Things are made “better”; things are modernised but sometimes the fun gets lost along the way. Back in the 1960’s we used to holiday as a family on the Isle of Wight, for me the best part of the journey was the ferry crossing. Usually dad would drive us, and we’d get the vehicle ferry from Portsmouth to Fishbourne but sometimes we’d go by train which meant arriving at Portsmouth Harbour Station and then getting the passenger ferry to Ryde Pier Head where we had the choice of a leisurely stroll along the pier to find our guesthouse or catching the train to Ryde Esplanade. Then often during our holiday we’d get the foot-ferry from Ryde Pier Head back to Portsmouth for a day poking around the dockyards, as far as was allowed and of course a visit to H.M.S. Victory was de rigueur, or a day at the funfair at nearby Southsea.

The ferries were proper small ships, up until 1970 one of them (P.S. Ryde) was still a paddle steamer. Whenever we used the passenger ferries, I always hoped that it would be the Ryde although more often than not it would be one of the others, one of the screw driven ships, Brading or Southsea or Shanklin. On those ships you could go below to the saloon or walk about the decks with the wind and salt spray in your hair. Sometime in the mid 1980’s the old ferries were replaced by new, modern, fast catamarans. No more promenading on deck, you had to remain seated for the voyage.
Call that progress? I don’t think I do.

Actually, in the late 1980’s I went to the Isle of Wight on a day trip with my then girlfriend Linda. The outward crossing had been on one of the hated catamarans. During the day, the skies became cloudy, and a wind got up. As we alighted from the train at Ryde pier head station it could be seen that there was quite a swell running in the Solent and then to our surprise, behind the station buildings, waiting there to ferry us back to the mainland was one of the old ships. I can’t remember which one it was, Brading or Southsea, but one had obviously been pressed into service as it was too rough for the catamarans to operate. What a marvellous voyage back to Portsmouth that was, the ship rolling in the heavy swell, what a joy.

So, you see, I’d been aboard H.M.S. Victory, a number of times, but I’d never been aboard Cutty Sark and I was about to put that right. The voyage along the river to Greenwich took just under an hour and in spite of the signs urging you to remain seated during the journey it was quite enjoyable. The Palace of Westminster, wretched hive of scum and villainy though it may well be, was looking good in the sunlight now that all the scaffolding has been removed from the Elizabeth Tower. I was only told to sit down once by a member of the crew as I was hanging over the railings trying to get a decent view along the side of the boat. Don’t even think of trying to access the foredeck.

We docked at Greenwich pier, I disembarked, touched out with the mighty Oyster and walked up the ramp to dry land. I could see the masts sticking up above the group of small buildings on the quayside, I walked around one of those buildings and there she was.

Cutty Sark had been sat in that dry dock since 1954. The dock was connected to the river then and the ship had been floated in, albeit shorn of masts and rigging. The entrance to the dock was filled in and the water pumped out and there she sat. Over the intervening years the structure of the hull had begun to sag and deform under its own weight. In the early 2000’s plans were afoot to renovate the ship and the project involved raising the entire thing 3 metres into the air above the floor of its dry dock and building a glass canopy to completely cover the dock and mate with the hull just above the waterline.

I have to say that I’m in two minds about the results. From an engineering point of view, it’s fabulous. The ship sits there, hoisted up on steel stanchions which are plumbed into the hull and support the weight in a much more sympathetic way, more like if the ship were afloat, which is good for the fabric of the ship. On the minus side, you can’t properly see the hull in one go. You can see above the waterline from outside and you can see below the waterline from inside the glass canopy.

I paid my entrance fee and boarded the ship. As the ship is now sitting 3 metres higher than it used to, the tour route, which starts at ground level takes you straight into the main hold of the ship from where you navigate, past many exhibits telling the story of the ship and the tea trade, through the hold, up onto the ‘tween deck (the deck between the hold and the main deck) and eventually out into the daylight.

Eventually I was standing on the main deck looking up at the masts and trying to imagine being at sea under full sail. It must have been a thing of pure beauty and absolute terror. I thought back to the hours I’d spent, with two models of this ship, painstakingly affixing cotton rigging to the plastic masts and spars.

I stood on the foredeck, I stood on the poop deck with my hands upon the wheel. Oh yes, I was rounding the Horn in the eye of a storm. Ooohhhh, titter ye not! Poop deck, that’s what it’s called. Interesting factette; the word “poop” in this context comes from the French “la poupe” which simply means, “the stern” and that’s the blunt end for you landlubbers.

After drinking my fill of the sights of the masts, spars and endless miles of rope and chain I made my way off of the ship, via a walkway into a small tower containing a lift and staircase which takes you down to the bottom of the dock. I had been steeling myself for this moment, being able to walk underneath the ship. I walked out into the covered dock space.
My first thought was, WOW!

There, hanging above the heads of the people milling around and sitting at café tables, was the graceful shape of the hull and it was a shape that I felt I knew. I’d held that shape in my hands, I knew it. Memories of my Airfix modelling days once again came back to me.

The entrance to this space beneath the ship is at the stern, off of the starboard quarter you might say if you were feeling particularly nautical, and there behind the rudder was the café. I slowly walked forward towards the bow. At the far end of the dock there is a display of ship figureheads but the thing that interested me was the two stone stairways. The very ones that I used to walk down, as far as was allowed, back in the 70’s and 80’s. I took great delight in walking up the steps on one side and then walking down, all the way down, the steps on the other side.

So that was Cutty Sark. What was I going to do now? I’d had no signal from the intrepid flower explorers in Chelsea, so I thought I’d pop across, or rather under the river and have a gander at the new Elizabeth Line which had opened scant days before. I found Greenwich DLR station and went up to Canary Wharf where I left the station to find the Elizabeth Line station of the same name, which was just around the corner, nestling under those frightful tower blocks.

On the way I passed across/through the Adams Plaza Bridge, quite the colourful experience.

Down, down, down into the bowels of the earth. They certainly have gone to town with this new railway line. I caught a train going towards Liverpool Street where I thought I’d change for the “branch” going up towards Shenfield. I say “branch” as at the time of writing the Elizabeth Line is being operated as three distinct sections, to be joined-up later in the year, “phased opening” as they put it.

I got onto the train and my heart sank. Longitudinal seating with the occasional group of transverse seating. I just do not like longitudinal seating and the seats were quite hard to boot. We really were spoiled with the upholstery that used to be on the old A60/62 stock on the Metropolitan line. Admittedly, towards the end of its life the seats on the A60/62 left a little to be desired, but this modern penchant for hard seating is something else that I don’t like.

When I got to Liverpool Street things got worse. I had just assumed that it would be a simple platform change for the Shenfield branch. Nope, I had to go up, up, up and into the concourse of Liverpool Street Station where the Elizabeth Line services were running from platforms 15, 16 & 17 . I hadn’t been here since October 2019 when I was on my way to Poznań to go to Wrocław, Gdańsk and Łódź, amongst other places.

Next departure platform 15 then, in just a few minutes time. I boarded the train and made for some of the scarce transverse seats. I thought I’d go all the way to Shenfield but en route I decided to alight at Romford and then catch the Overground train which runs on the single-track branch line to Upminster. From Upminster I could catch the District Line back into Central London where I thought that I’d descend once more into the earth and ride the Elizabeth Line westwards for a bit.

A few minutes after leaving Upminster on the District Line’s longitudinal but ever so slightly softer seats, I received a message from the flower explorers. “We’re out.” It was just on 14:00 and it was going to take me the best part of an hour to get back to Sloane Square, so I suggested that they settle in pub somewhere and wait.

I rattled on through east and central London and eventually arrived at Sloane Square station where I found the flower explorers siting at a table in the middle of Sloane Square itself, sipping very expensive drinks, so I joined them for a very expensive gin and tonic and a slice of pizza before we set off back out into the hinterlands of rural Buckinghamshire. One we’d arrived back in Chesham we stopped off at Waitrose and procured goodies and dainties enough to provide a suitable evening repast. The flower explorers had had an enjoyable time and I’d certainly enjoyed myself so all in all we’d all had a jolly good time.

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